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Auburn looked bad last year, but there are signs that a breakthrough is coming

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Bruce Pearl has signed two straight top-25 recruiting classes. Will we start to see results on the court?

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Alabama Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

How Did We Get Here?

Auburn hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2003. They haven’t made any postseason tournament, or even had a winning season, since 2009. Both of those are the longest current droughts in the SEC. But there are reasons to think that at least one of those droughts might be coming to an end soon.

There have been a few questions raised about Bruce Pearl in the wake of an ugly, 11-20 season that saw the Tigers finish the season ranked 192nd in KenPom, post an SEC-worst per possession scoring margin of -15.6 points per 100 possessions (largely thanks to a horrendous offense that ranked 14th in the conference by a wide margin), and that represented a drop-off from Pearl’s first season.

But that’s sort of missing the point. Rebuilds aren’t necessarily linear; for one recent example, Tony Bennett’s first Virginia team went 15-16 and finished 76th in KenPom, but his second team dropped off to 103rd (though they did go 16-15.) Billy Donovan started his career at Florida by posting back-to-back losing seasons. Both made the tournament in their third year.

It’s probably wrong to write off Pearl because Auburn has struggled in his first two years, and had a worse team in 2016 than they did in 2015. Pearl clearly inherited a tire fire from Tony Barbee, but in 2014-15, KT Harrell did quite a bit to mask just how awful the situation was. With Harrell gone, the mess Pearl inherited was readily apparent.

And for another thing, it’s not all that difficult to figure out why Auburn struggled in 2015-16. Cinmeon Bowers playing point guard at the end of the season should have been your first clue. Does anyone honestly believe Pearl was playing a 250-pound power forward at the point on purpose?

To recap, sophomore 7-footer Trayvon Reed disappeared (for lack of a better word; it’s really not clear what happened) before the season and never came back. Top recruit Danjel Purifoy was declared ineligible by the NCAA and didn’t play; some say Purifoy was the team’s best player in practice. Backup point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen was lost for the season early on and ultimately retired from basketball. Starting guard T.J. Dunans missed 15 games to injury. Kareem Canty, the team’s starting point guard and best player, was dismissed from the team in February.

And yet early on, the Tigers showed positive signs. They beat a UAB team that would finish 26-7 to open the season. They managed to beat Kentucky in January. But things got ugly as the injuries started to pile up, and in particular after Canty was dismissed: A 32-point loss at Florida, a 26-point loss at Tennessee, a 29-point loss to Vanderbilt, and, finally, a 38-point loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament.

But it’s hard to see this as a reflection on Pearl or his rebuilding effort because at almost no point in 2015-16 did he have the team he wanted to put on the floor. Instead, he had a team on which a pair of walk-ons averaged 7.8 and 6.4 minutes in SEC play because he needed to put five players on the floor at all times.

In the previews for both Missouri and Tennessee, I remarked that player attrition isn’t necessarily a bad thing for struggling teams, because, after all, the players were quite likely a reason why the team was bad. But in Auburn’s case, the incoming players really might be better than the players they’re replacing. Pearl has recruited well, bringing in (per 247 Sports) the nation’s 15th-ranked recruiting class in 2015 and the 25th-ranked recruiting class in 2016 (and the latter included a five-star recruit), and — not that it matters for this year — currently has the nation’s 2nd-ranked recruiting class for 2017. He also has a couple of graduate transfers, one a former four-star recruit, entering the fold this year. The roster issues that Pearl had to deal with in his first two years — a sheer lack of SEC-level talent in his first year, and a severe lack of depth in his second year — are mostly gone.

In short, it doesn’t seem like a question of if the breakthrough is coming, but when. That said, TSK’s contributors aren’t convinced it will be this year; in the preseason poll of seven TSK contributors, Auburn ranked in a tie for 11th, with one contributor ranking them 9th but everyone else picking them between 10th and 12th. I myself picked them to finish 10th, but I suspect that a lot of the reason for the low ranking has to do with 2015-16 leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. If I had to pick one of the bottom four teams from the SEC last year to break through and get back to the postseason, Auburn might well be my pick for that.

Which isn’t to say that it will happen, but I can see how it might happen.

Backcourt

Auburn Backcourt
# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG SPG WS Notes
Kareem Canty 34.3 18.3 3.0 5.3 3.0 0.8 1.9 Dismissed from team
Tahj Shamsid-Deen 11.6 2.6 1.2 1.6 0.4 0.6 0.0 Retired from basketball
4 T.J. Dunans 6’5” 174 SR. 0.9600 29.4 11.6 2.5 3.4 3.1 1.6 0.8
23 T.J. Lang 6’7” 200 JR. 0.8177 24.9 7.1 2.1 0.6 0.6 0.5 1.6
2 Bryce Brown 6’3” 195 SO. 0.8138 24.7 10.1 1.8 0.7 1.0 0.4 1.0
44 New Williams 6’2” 170 SO. 0.8816 6.4 0.9 0.8 0.2 0.3 0.1 -0.1
1 Jared Harper 5’10” 165 FR. 0.9514
5 Mustapha Heron 6’5” 215 FR. 0.9908
35 Ronnie Johnson 6’0” 180 SR. 0.9645 22.3 9.4 2.6 2.9 1.6 0.7 2.2 Grad transfer (Houston)

Surprisingly, for a team that really struggled on the offensive end last year, Auburn seems to have quite a lot of talented guards on the roster. Of course, three of the seven guards on the roster weren’t at Auburn last year.

And a fourth, T.J. Dunans, missed half of last season. The 6’5” senior averaged 13.8 ppg in Auburn’s first nine games of the season — and then he was injured in Auburn’s tenth game, missing the next 15 games. He did return late in the year, but by that time the season was lost, and Dunans wasn’t in the same form that he had shown early in the season. But Dunans’ biggest impact might be on the defensive end: his 1.6 steals per game would have ranked fourth in the SEC if he’d played in enough games to qualify, and his length created problems for opposing guards. Auburn’s defense was notably worse without Dunans in the lineup.

And for all that, Dunans isn’t even guaranteed to start this year. That’s because Bruce Pearl signed Auburn’s first-ever five-star recruit in Mustapha Heron. The 6’5” lefty has a good shooting stroke and also is strong enough to drive to the basket and finish at the rim. Heron is an early contender for SEC Freshman of the Year and could be a double-figure scorer right away for Auburn.

With Tahj Shamsid-Deen retiring from basketball due to injuries, the last of Tony Barbee’s recruits is out of the program. But it also means that Auburn will have a first-year point guard. Ronnie Johnson started his career at Purdue, then transferred to Houston, where he was a big part of the Cougars’ improvement from 13 to 22 wins last year. Now he comes to Auburn as a graduate transfer and he’ll be immediately eligible for his last year of college ball.

Johnson averaged 9.4 ppg and 2.9 apg at Houston, but he’s steadily improved his shot -- going from 59.6 percent at the foul line as a freshman at Purdue to 80.0 percent last year — and while he’s a pass-first point guard, he could be more of what Auburn needs than Kareem Canty was. Canty was primarily a scorer, but with other scoring options on the roster Pearl may be looking for more of a distributor.

Johnson’s presence should allow Pearl to bring freshman Jared Harper along slowly. Harper is a good ball-handler and distributor who’s pretty quick, but his slight frame (5’10”/165) and a jump shot that needs work likely mean he’ll be primarily a distributor for now. Harper could take the starting job if he comes along quickly.

As a freshman, Bryce Brown was forced into probably a bigger role than he was ready for thanks primarily to Dunans’ injury. Brown averaged 17.6 minutes per game in Auburn’s first nine games (before Dunans got hurt) but that number jumped to 27.6 minutes per night in SEC play, which... isn’t the normal pattern for freshmen. Brown was the rough equivalent of a one-tool slugger as a freshman, showing one above average skill (shooting), albeit a pretty important one.

But with a healthy Dunans and with Heron now in the fold, Brown — who averaged 10.1 ppg as a freshman — could be slated to provide instant offense off the bench in 2016-17. That would limit his exposure on the defensive end, where he lacks the length of Dunans or Heron.

Junior T.J. Lang, Pearl’s first recruit at Auburn, might be a classic example of a guy who got recruited over during a rebuild. Lang shot 40.3 percent on three-pointers as a sophomore and averaged 7.1 ppg — though his 68 percent foul shooting suggests he’s probably not a “true” 40 percent three-point shooter. With all the newcomers, it’s not entirely clear what Lang’s role on the team will be: he can provide some offense, but he’s not a great defender on the perimeter.

Sophomore New Williams struggled with his shot while playing limited minutes as a freshman; and let’s just say that a player who couldn’t find minutes on last year’s Auburn team probably won’t be seeing too much playing time in this year’s backcourt unless he’s vastly improved over last year. Still, Williams’ presence should mean that Pearl won’t have to play walk-ons if anybody gets hurt; last year, walk-ons Patrick Keim and Devin Waddell combined to play 320 minutes as the injuries piled up.

Frontcourt

Auburn Frontcourt
# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG BPG WS Notes
Tyler Harris 28.5 13.9 7.7 1.3 2.5 0.5 2.0
Cinmeon Bowers 28.5 10.5 9.6 1.6 2.9 0.4 0.6
Jordon Granger 21.5 4.7 2.3 0.6 0.5 0.5 1.4
0 Horace Spencer 6’8” 220 SO. 0.9749 18.1 5.1 4.9 0.5 1.4 2.1 0.6
12 LaRon Smith 6’8” 215 SR. NR 25.4 7.2 6.9 0.6 1.2 3.0 2.2 Grad transfer (Bethune-Cookman)
3 Danjel Purifoy 6’7” 230 FR. 0.9740 Redshirted 2015-16
24 Anfernee McLemore 6’7” 210 FR. 0.8698 td>
10 Heath Huff 6’10” 250 FR. NR Walk-on
13 DeSean Murray 6’4” 230 JR. NR Transfer (Presbyterian); sitting out 2016-17

Auburn loses 70 percent of its rebounding from 2015-16, and graduated seniors Cinmeon Bowers and Tyler Harris accounted for a lot of that. Yet the frontcourt was a major trouble spot for the Tigers last year: Auburn ranked 13th in the SEC in two-point percentage, 12th in two-point percentage defense, 14th in offensive rebounding, and 12th in defensive rebounding. Both big men were turnover-prone to boot.

In other words, this might wind up being addition by subtraction -- if Auburn had any obvious replacements. That’s an open question, but the Tigers do have a pair of former four-star recruits from the 2015 recruiting class here. Horace Spencer ranked third in the SEC in blocked shots last year in spite of playing just 18.1 minutes per game, and if he can stay on the floor more he could emerge as one of the SEC’s top interior defenders. Why did he only play 18 minutes a night? Probably because he was also spectacularly foul-prone as a freshman, leading the SEC with 115 personal fouls while playing 18 minutes per game (That’s not exactly a stat you want to lead the conference in). The 6’8” sophomore from Philadelphia is also a work in progress on the offensive end, shooting just 42 percent from the floor in spite of mostly taking chip shots. But if Spencer can stay on the floor more, he could be a game-changing defender and greatly help a defense that finished 12th in the SEC in points per possession.

Danjel Purifoy, a 6’7” redshirt freshman from Centreville, Alabama, sat out last year due to an eligibility issue but reportedly was Auburn’s best player in practice. Purifoy has the strength to finish through contact and he’s also an active defender with length. The combination of Purifoy and Spencer could give Auburn a defensive presence that they’ve really lacked over the last couple of years, and Purifoy should provide some scoring punch inside as well.

Depth is a question mark, though, and Pearl added 6’8” graduate transfer LaRon Smith to shore up the frontcourt. Smith averaged 3 blocks per game at Bethune-Cookman (and ranked fourth in the country in block percentage) last year, and he also shot 58.4 percent from the floor. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say a guy who averaged 7.2 ppg in the MEAC probably won’t be an offensive force in the SEC. Still, Smith at worst should give Pearl another body in the paint and another shot blocker to back up Spencer. 6’7” freshman Anfernee McLemore is a three-star recruit who’s honestly kind of a mystery: I can’t seem to find a highlight tape on him, but at worst he should provide depth up front.

With only four scholarship players in the frontcourt, I’ve listed Heath Huff — a preferred walk-on who had some mid-major scholarship offers — just in case. Huff at least has size at 6’10” and 250 pounds and could be an emergency depth guy in case of injuries or foul trouble.

Schedule

Auburn Basketball Schedule
Date Opponent Time (CT) TV
11/4 Montevallo (exhibition) 8:30 PM
11/11 North Florida 8:30 PM SEC Network+
11/14 Georgia State 8:00 PM SEC Network
11/17 Eastern Kentucky 8:00 PM SEC Network
11/22-23 Cancun Challenge CBS Sports Network
11/29 USC Upstate 7:00 PM SEC Network+
12/3 at UAB 7:30 PM BeIN Sports
12/12 vs. Boston College (New York) 6:00 PM
12/15 Coastal Carolina 8:00 PM SEC Network
12/18 Mercer 12:00 PM SEC Network
12/21 vs. Oklahoma (Uncasville, CT) 7:30 PM CBS Sports Network
12/23 at UConn 1:30 PM ESPN2
12/29 Georgia 6:00 PM ESPNU
1/4 at Vanderbilt 6:00 PM SEC Network
1/7 Ole Miss 5:00 PM SEC Network
1/10 at Missouri 6:00 PM SEC Network
1/14 at Kentucky 3:00 PM ESPN/ESPN2
1/18 LSU 7:30 PM SEC Network
1/21 Alabama 3:00 PM ESPN/ESPN2
1/24 at South Carolina 5:30 PM SEC Network
1/28 at TCU 5:00 PM ESPNU
1/31 Tennessee 8:00 PM SEC Network
2/4 at Alabama 7:30 PM SEC Network
2/7 Mississippi State 8:00 PM ESPNU
2/11 at Ole Miss 5:00 PM SEC Network
2/14 Florida 6:00 PM SEC Network
2/18 at Texas A&M 3:00 PM ESPNU
2/21 at LSU 6:00 PM SEC Network
2/25 Arkansas 7:30 PM SEC Network
3/1 at Georgia 5:30 PM SEC Network
3/4 Missouri 2:30 PM SEC Network

Auburn’s non-conference schedule is ambitious: while the neutral-court game against Oklahoma and the trip to UConn jump out at you, North Florida was an NIT team last year, Coastal Carolina won 21 games, and there’s a tricky road trip to UAB. The Tigers will also play Texas Tech and either Purdue or Utah State in Cancun. And the schedule is also light on the dregs of Division I: When the second-worst team on your nonconference schedule, per Ken Pomeroy, is an ACC team (Boston College) then your schedule probably isn’t going to be an issue if you’re under consideration for a tournament bid.

The Tigers’ conference slate gets off to a rough start with trips to Vanderbilt and Kentucky, as well as a home game against Georgia (and a potential land mine at Missouri) in the first five games but is pretty manageable after that. Drawing Ole Miss, LSU, and Missouri twice each — the former two are probably rebuilding while Missouri is, well, Missouri -- could help boost the record.

Outlook

When I write the season previews, there always seems to be a team or two where I take a close look at the roster and it looks a lot different from what the general consensus about the team would seem to imply.

That’s Auburn. The rebuilding process seemed to take a step back last year with an 11-20 record and with the Tigers being the SEC’s worst team in terms of efficiency, but most of that wasn’t Bruce Pearl’s fault and he clearly knows what he’s doing here in spite of a 9-27 SEC record in two years.

We already knew that, but the projections of another long season in Auburn — including, apparently, myself and TSK (I picked the Tigers 10th, and the staff consensus was a tie for 11th) — suggest that it bears repeating.

There are still some question marks here, particularly up front (and especially if Spencer can’t stay on the floor due to foul trouble), but the roster in 2016-17 is almost night-and-day different from the last couple of years or at any point under Tony Barbee. There aren’t any guys who frankly have no business playing in the SEC, there aren’t really any guys who are projected to be playing a bigger role than they should, and there aren’t any weird, inexplicable holes on the depth chart that will become sore spots if there’s a spate of injuries.

I’m not quite ready to project Auburn to go to the NCAA Tournament or anything like that. But assuming there aren’t a ton of injuries again, this team should be ready to take a step forward in 2016-17, and if the youngsters develop this could be an NIT team.

And that’s a big deal for a program that hasn’t seen a winning season in seven years.